Racewalking, an Olympic sport people can relate to
Frank Hart was from Boston and he was a huge deal. Stride for stride, few could keep up with him. He was born in Haiti, emigrated to the United States in the 1870s, and was working in the Hub as a young grocery clerk when he made his mark as a world-famous pedestrian.
In America’s post-Civil War sports world, a pedestrian was what we know today as a racewalker. If you watch the Olympics, which open Friday in Rio de Janeiro, eventually you’ll notice the walkers. Every quadrennium, they take gold as the Games’ weirdos, their wiry bodies, comical gait, and piston-like arm action never failing to leave spectators to ask, “Hey, who are those geeks?’’
Truth is, the walkers (men and women) are highly disciplined, elite athletes, the best of whom can cover 20 kilometers at a pace of around six minutes a mile. The big event (men only) is 50 kilometers, and the best click off those 30 miles at about seven minutes per. Try it. You’ll find it ain’t your granddad’s walk in the park.
As the 20th century approached, pedestrianism was the biggest spectator draw in the US. Fans packed arenas for these grueling footraces, with the athletes napping on cots on the arena floor to regain energy for what were typically nonstop, six-day events. Like horse racing, betting was profligate.
The top pedestrians — or “peds,’’ as they were known — were true stars, especially in the US, England (where the sport originated in the mid-1800s), Australia, and New Zealand. They were the Bradys and LeBrons of their time.
Hart, whose given name was Fred Hichborn, was black, and he was known here and abroad as “Black Dan’’ or the “Negro Wonder.” He was a protégé of Dan O’Leary, an Irishman from Chicago who years earlier was the sport’s top dog and then became one of its biggest promoters.
O’Leary financed Hart’s pro career, astounding in itself, considering the state of US race relations at the start of the 1880s. Less then 20 years earlier, many parts of the country still considered blacks as property. Landowners purchased them as slaves, viewed them as livestock. Yet here was Hart, a black Haitian suddenly rich in celebrity, backed and promoted by a white Irishman from Chicago.
“[Hart] proved that a black American could rival the best endurance athletes in the world,’’ wrote Edward S. Sears in his book, “Running Through The Ages,” on the evolution of track and field.
On April 10, 1880, the 22-year-old Hart captured the “O’Leary Belt,’’ six-day pedestrian race in New York City with a total of 565 miles. Figuring he walked 20 hours a day, he raced those days at an a average pace of 4.7 miles an hour, slightly more than 12 minutes per mile. William Pegram, another black man from Boston, finished second with 548 miles. They both covered more than 90 miles every day.
Hart’s prize money for copping the O’Leary Belt: $17,000. Keep in mind, in 1880 a good weekly wage in the US was approximately $11, or less than $600 a year. Hart’s take for that one event approached nearly 30 years’ worth of wages. With a current US median wage some $42,000 annually, a similar take would be about $1.26 million.
The Cleveland Gazette estimated that Hart earned roughly $100,000 from six-day pedestrian races. But as the 20th century drew near and America adopted baseball as its national pastime, fan interest in pedestrianism abruptly vanished.
Hart played Negro League baseball in Chicago in his later years and died of tuberculosis at age 50. Per his obituary in the Cleveland Gazette, he lived off “the charity of friends’’ for the final 20 years of his life.
“Like many other sporting men,’’ reported the Gazette, as noted on trackandfieldnews.com, “he was a big liver and a good spender.’’
Hart’s fame predated the modern Olympic era, which was born with the 1896 Summer Games in Athens. In 1908, the year he died, two racewalking events were included in the London Olympics and, other than the 1924 Games in Paris, the walkers have been a Summer Games staple. Women racewalkers were finally added for 1992 in Barcelona.
Racewalking is the most basic of all sports, so elementary, in fact, that it is often viewed, particularly by Americans, as somewhat the pitiable grade schooler in the Ivy League of Olympic sports. Everyone can walk. What’s the big deal?
“What’s up with the racewalkers?’’ asked Bob Costas, the NBC broadcasting icon, during a 2000 Olympic broadcast. “I mean, I respect them as athletes, but come on . . . ’’
A sport to decide the fastest walker, added Costas, “is like having a contest to see who can whisper loudest.’’
OK. And Costas is a guy who usually gets it, better than most. Better he stopped at “I respect them.’’
In a television ad to promote Snickers, Mr. T drives up aside a racewalker and bellows, “I pity you, fool. You’re a disgrace to the man race!’’ Employing a massive machine gun to fire Snickers at the walker, Mr. T adds, “It’s time to run like a real man.’’
I’m not sure how best to identify Mr. T anyway, so I can’t be too offended by a guy who makes a few bucks shooting candy from a gun. Bozo must have been unavailable.
Actually, I see the walkers as every man’s (and woman’s) most subtle, yet profound, potential entry point to Olympic participation. Most of us can’t imagine, or even care to imagine, competing in the Olympics in, say, weightlifting, wrestling, pole vaulting or javelin. Lots of people run for recreation, sure, but Olympic marathoners and sprinters post mesmerizing times that would keep most kids from thinking to surrender a video joystick for a pair of sneakers and a shot at Olympus.
But as a Boston grocery clerk figured out in the late 1870s, in an America that offered few black men or women even the slightest dream, sometimes the simplest thing brings the biggest reward.
Frank Hart left the grocery story, put one foot in front of the other, and walked his way to fame.